Naval architects: designers of your dream yachts

2015-01-21By Dudley Dawson, James Roy, Tim Thomas
Designs for new yachts still require the skill and knowledge of naval architects

As technology replaces French curves, engineering consultancies take on technical briefs and a new breed of stylists emerge, the humble naval architect has seemingly been relegated to a background role. But look a little deeper and one thing is clear – the architect still plays the central role in modern yacht design.

Like other industries the superyacht sector evolves almost continuously. This is driven partly by new entrants arriving on the scene and, particularly when times get tough, by the need for yards and suppliers to look at new ways of becoming more efficient and responsive both to their customers’ requirements and the demands of the wider world.

Even the ways in which superyachts are designed has changed, most notably with the increasing divergence of the artistic side of yacht design – styling – from the technical discipline of naval architecture. Many design houses continue to combine the two, but there are increasing numbers of talented and exciting stylists coming into the sector who are happy to create the concepts that capture the imagination of the owners, while leaving the physical realisation of their ideas to others with the specific skills.

Of course, the implication is that the naval architect – who used to hold sway over the entirety of a project – has become a slave to the whims of stylists who may not even have a background in yachting or marine engineering.

BMT Nigel Gee was brought in to assist with Derecktor’s 85.6m Cakewalk

Naval architect’s roles

While every yacht project is a combined and coordinated effort involving many different professions and trades, there must still be a naval architect somewhere near the centre of the circle.

In the classic definition, the naval architect is a formally trained professional who is responsible for the completed yacht floating on her lines and running smoothly, efficiently and safely through the sea, and who holds responsibility for at least the underwater hull shape. In the absence of a stylist, they may undertake the design of the topsides and superstructure as well. In either case, the naval architect is also responsible for the internal structure both above and below the waterline.

The naval architect is often trained as a marine engineer as well, meaning he or she can take on the added role of overseeing the propulsion, electrical and mechanical aspects of the yacht’s design.

Starting off on the right foot is a critical step in assuring the success of the project, and it’s an obligation of both the architect and the client. The architect must try to fulfil the dream of the client, but the client must understand that some dreams can easily morph into nightmares, particularly if they are unreasonable or ill-defined at the outset.

Successful projects start with a reasonable concept based on sound principles of design and a good understanding of the sea, not from a quick sketch based on a whim. No matter how good that idea may have sounded after a few drinks at the yacht club bar, there is a reason that cocktail napkins don’t come pre-printed with title blocks.

Clients more often than not show up at the architect’s studio with what is simply referred to as ‘the file’. It is usually a big envelope of sketches, magazine articles, photos of existing yachts and plans from other architects, designers, stylists and builders.

‘There’s always a base boat brought by the owner,’ says Ron Holland, who heads an Ireland-based design studio working on sail and motor yachts.

‘Something I learnt long ago is that every client is different,’ says Jay Miner, head of design for US yard Delta Marine. ‘They are driven by different priorities and respond to different approaches. Once you understand what those priorities are, you can better serve the client as well as yourself.’

CAD design allows architects to work on several aspects, from structural development to outfitting and provision of full pipe spools, simultaneously.

Regulation limiting imagination?

In the past, the challenges that architects faced on behalf of clients were straightforward, as they involved understanding Mother Nature and the laws of physics.

Today, things are considerably more complicated for both the owner and the architect, and the culprit are the regulators. SOLAS, MARPOL, ABS, RINA, DNV, MCA, IMO… the list of regulatory and classification acronyms is endless, and with each comes another complicated, confusing and sometimes conflicting set of requirements. Next is the Maritime Labour Convention, which will soon regulate the design, manning and operation of yachts in unprecedented ways.

Holland is especially concerned about regulations for yachts over 500GT, but smaller yachts are not immune. ‘New rules confuse both designers and regulators, and add to cost and time,’ he says. ‘Shifting commercial requirements on to yachts is difficult.’

‘The more legislation, the more challenges we face,’ observes Marnix Hoekstra, co-owner of Dutch company Vripack. As well as undertaking its own design projects, Vripack provides support services to other naval architects and designers. ‘The fun is gone, so some owners are considering building smaller yachts. Too much hassle from police, customs, etc.’ At the same time, he notes, ‘Some owners are used to air and land legal requirements, so are more accepting of regulations.’

The modern naval architect must design the yacht to meet specific speed, weight and range goals, and comply with ever-increasing regulatory requirements


The architect’s process

Taking all that into account, the modern naval architect must design the yacht to meet specific speed, weight and range goals, and comply with ever-increasing regulatory requirements, while still providing accommodations, appearance and amenities to fulfil the client’s wishes.

The architect’s job is more complicated than ever, but otherwise, the process of getting from a clean sheet of paper to a finished yacht remains much the same as it always has. Starting with the file and preliminary meetings with the client, the architect makes the first circumnavigation of the design spiral, balancing a myriad of conflicting demands and making the decisions that are required in the process of informed compromise that is known as naval architecture.

Stress analysis of Cakewalk‘s stern section

First comes the preliminary profile and arrangement plan, defining the look and general outline of the yacht, and the general specification, which lists all of the materials and equipment that will come together to form the yacht. This is the preliminary design proposal, and is used as the basis for a contract between the client and architect, or between the client and builder if the architect works for the builder, to develop the design further and in more detail.

Next, calculations are made with regard to the expected weight of the completed yacht, in various conditions of fuel, water and complement loading. To develop this overall weight estimate, the individual weight of every single piece of structure, equipment and outfitting, right down to the last brushstroke of paint and the last crystal goblet, along with its location – vertically, longitudinally and transversely – must be accounted for. Even with computers, the process is mind-numbing, but it is the foundation upon which the design is built.

The weight estimate, once completed, is used to develop a rough lines plan, defining the shape of the hull. Particular attention is given to the underwater portion of the hull, which will determine whether the yacht will perform at optimum levels in various conditions of loading. It must also take on the worst that the sea has to offer, riding as comfortably as possible, without drawing too much water to venture into shallow venues that might be on the client’s cruising agenda. In an iterative process, the lines plan and the arrangement of the yacht and its equipment, and thus also the weight estimate, are refined until they agree as to the locations of the centres of gravity and buoyancy.

This general construction plan, along with the profile and arrangement plans, the lines plan, and the specifications, form the bid package


Having completed that, the architect then goes around the design spiral once again, or maybe twice or thrice, refining the design and coming ever closer to what will eventually be the final design. At each step, more detail is added. For example, a rough estimate of the total weight of the electrical system is used for the first turn around the spiral. A refined estimate in more detail is considered the second time, and perhaps a final calculation the third time would use actual weights and locations for every motor, appliance, electrical panel and lighting fixture.
Somewhere in the middle of this, the architect will also address the construction of the yacht in moderate detail in order to estimate the weight of that portion, and to define for the prospective builder or builders the scope of their bid. This general construction plan, along with the profile and arrangement plans, the lines plan and the specifications, form the bid package with which the client, or the architect on his behalf, will begin contract negotiations with one or more prospective builders.

The inner workings of a tender launching system shows the detail that goes into superyacht design.

Creating construction plans

Once the construction contract is signed, the race is on to complete the detailed package of construction drawings that will precisely define every welded plate, every varnished bulkhead, every polished stainless rail and every etched marble panel that goes into the yacht.

Seldom is this done by a single architectural studio, but rather is a team effort by the architect, builder and numerous vendors. Nevertheless, the architect remains centrally responsible for the end result, and must thus keep an ever-vigilant eye on the builder’s progress. So just how does the naval architect assure that success? ‘Our goal is to satisfy the client, not ourselves,’ says Holland, ‘We don’t have a house style. The problem is the designer not listening to the owner – that’s where the battles originate.’

For Ward Setzer, an independent naval architect based in the US, the best relationships are based on clearly defining the clients’ expectations in a scope of supply.

‘Specifically,’ he says, ‘you must show by way of examples the depth of detail they should expect to receive. Then if they wish for more or less, we can adjust so no one will be unhappy with the end results. Communication – clear, regular and precise – is the key to success.’

There is a time when it is appropriate for the architect to contradict the owner which, according to Holland, is ‘when the boat doesn’t make sense technically’. He notes, though, that architects, himself included, must sometimes be pulled from their comfort zone by a progressive owner when the architect’s objections are simply tradition-based rather than founded on any sound technical basis.

‘Client expectations are that their needs are being understood, that they are getting value for money, that the builder and architect are communicating openly and clearly with them,’ adds Miner. ‘The process of creating a yacht is not unlike a marriage. Mutual commitment results in mutual obligations. Both parties have to feel that they are being treated fairly. And the idea is to enjoy the relationship.’

Indeed, the words trust, commitment, open dialogue, respect, involvement, personal and family pop up so often when talking with naval architects that it’s not surprising to learn that the architect and client often end up as life-long friends. Not only do they collaborate on future projects but also take an interest in each other’s lives on a personal basis. It is perhaps not Miner’s marriage, but at least a committed relationship.

Computational fluid dynamics work is becoming increasingly accurate.

Evolution of the naval architect

So has the role of the naval architect really changed?

‘My career as a naval architect started 25 years ago,’ says Sergio Cutolo of Hydro Tec, ‘and I personally think that the role hasn’t really changed. There are big differences, however, in the yachting industry.

‘Firstly, when I started in 1986 I worked for Baglietto which was the only Italian yard in the yachting industry to have its own technical department headed by a naval architect, and we designed our boats from the hull lines to structures and right down to the engine room and piping systems.

‘Secondly, 25 years ago, 40m was considered a large yacht.

‘Thirdly, there are the Rules, particularly MCA and similar relating to commercial yachts. So I would turn the question around, and ask “Have the great changes in the yachting industry required a deeper involvement of professional naval architects in the design of large yachts?”, and my answer would be a definite yes.’

Originally published: May 2011.

BMT Nigel Gee